Every time I travel north on Interstate 87 from Albany, New York, to the Adirondacks, I pass over the well-known "Twin Bridges," technically the Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge which spans the Mohawk River just a few miles north of the city. The bridge offers a nice view of an idyllic riverside with cottages nestled along the shore and people swimming and boating. It never occurred to me until recently that just underneath the bridge is the site of a old ferry that figures prominently in one of my favorite paintings here in the Fenimore Art Museum.
Dunsbach's Ferry Across the Mohawk is a painting done in the 1890s by an O. B. Scouten that depicts the ferry operation in astonishing detail. The artist shows the landmark buildings on the near shore, including a house on the left built by Killian Van De Burg in 1718, and a tavern on the right operated at the time by John Sheffer, known as "Dutch John." The train in the background hints at the importance of the Ferry, as it connected travelers to and from Albany to the Troy and Schenectady line of the New York Central Railroad.
But it is the figures and their activities in this painting that has always intrigued me. In the foreground you see farmers with a hay wagon alongside city folk waiting for the ferry, and at the right there is a woman feeding chickens and boys swimming in the river. On the ferry itself (detail below) the artist has depicted two ferry workers, one manning the rope and the other pulling the ferry along the guidelines. There is also a two-horse wagon with a well-dressed couple.
Take a good look at the couple. The man's attention is not focused on his companion, but rather on the seated couple on the edge of the ferry behind the wagon, who appear to be in full embrace and in mid-kiss. Here is the value of a folk artist: no detail goes unnoticed or is thought to be too trivial. As much as I like historic photography (see the image of Dunsbach's Ferry in the collection of the Capital District Library Council above), there is no substitute the artist-voyeur.